The Night Stalker (1972)

I wished my son pleasant dreams tonight and got an earful. “I am NOT going to have pleasant dreams! You showed me a vampire movie and I am NINETY-NINE POINT FOUR PER CENT CERTAIN that I’m going to have nightmares tonight!”

Yes, our son did not like tonight’s movie one little bit. He made his feelings very clear by telling us that his favorite scene was when our hero, Carl Kolchak, puts a cassette in his little tape player about ten seconds into the picture and presses play. It was all downhill from there. He didn’t like the fights, he didn’t like the shootouts, he didn’t like the car tires squealing on the roads around Las Vegas, because he was freaked out, frightened, and scared out of his wits by this great, great TV movie.

I sometimes wonder how ABC promoted this movie back then, because they did something right. It’s not like vampires couldn’t have been seen in dozens of films over the previous decade, and as much as we all like the great Darren McGavin, it’s honestly not like he was television’s biggest draw. But the stars lined up and I guess that CBS and NBC had a lousy evening, because when the Nielsens came in, The Night Stalker proved to be the highest-rated TV movie the industry had ever seen to that point, with a mammoth 48 share. The film was produced by Dan Curtis, directed by John Llewelyn Moxey, and scripted by Richard Matheson from a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.

I think it’s one of the very best, and sometimes I think it’s the all-time greatest vampire movie ever made. Sometimes I pick this and sometimes I pick Christopher Lee’s first Dracula movie for Hammer. But I love the way that Carl Kolchak is the hero here, and the vampire is a dark, silent killer. And Carl Kolchak is one of television’s greatest characters, a ten-time loser who’s too proud and too smug to play by the rules and is the architect of his own undoing. We aren’t told what got him fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, but we see it here: his attitude. Kolchak’s been fighting City Hall, and losing, for years, and this time, when City Hall is covering up a vampire, City Hall isn’t going to take prisoners.

Joining McGavin in this debut adventure, there’s Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor Vincenzo, and Claude Akins as the first of many policemen to have had it up to here with this nosy reporter. Carol Lynley plays Carl’s doomed girlfriend – but not doomed in the way that girlfriends in vampire movies are typically doomed – and there are small roles for Larry Linville and Elisha Cook Jr.

He protested that he hated this, but our son did come to life when the vampire – named “Janos Skorzeny,” unforgettably, and played by Barry Atwater – started throwing around orderlies in a hospital. “He’s as strong as a dozen men!” he marvelled, and he wowed when one man is thrown through a window to his apparent death. The vampire stuff is incredibly well done, with the climactic search through the home where Skorzeny has holed up going on for what feels like forever since the tension is so incredible. Yes, our son was behind the sofa. I didn’t think he was ever coming out.

My copy of the two Kolchak TV movies is Anchor Bay’s old double-sided release, and both my player and my laptop are unhappy with it. The player stretched it into widescreen – even the Anchor Bay logo and the menu – and no setting would restore it, and the laptop’s navigation slider was disabled. The films have since been given a new 4K restoration and the editions that were released last October have a lot of positive reviews. I might upgrade them, but I may have some expenses this month and so our next visit with Carl will be on the same edition. I assured our son that when we meet Carl again, there will not be a vampire. “Well, who does he fight? Frankenstein?” I said we’ll see.

Eerie, Indiana 1.14 – The Hole in the Head Gang

As I planned and pencilled the schedule for this blog, I certainly didn’t intend to replace a program that our kid is mostly ambivalent about with one of his absolute favorites, but I did. I told him the other night that we were shelving Barbary Coast for a few weeks and resuming Eerie, Indiana and he’s been hopping around like Santa’s on the way. He appeared at the top of the stairs this morning and asked “Is it time for Eerie yet?” And good morning to you, too, son!

When Eerie was first shown in 1991-92, and when 22 episodes was the standard number for a season, networks would often start an order for a new program with 13, and then, if it was successful, order what was called “the back nine” to bring it to 22. This is the only show I’m aware of that had an order for a “back six.” The timeslot was terrible and the ratings were just about at the bottom of the Nielsens, but the show had its champions at the network and among TV critics, and it wasn’t like NBC had very many other programming options other than more news shows, so the show lucked out.

There are a couple of small, but neat cast changes in the last six. Perhaps most obviously, Jason Marsden joins the cast as a weird, gravel-voiced, amnesiac kid who acts as antagonist to Marshall and Simon. The character doesn’t know his own name, but he has a minus sign tattooed on the back of one hand and a plus sign on the other, which will lead to him getting a name of sorts. But I like the other change even better. Our young heroes get to see the character they thought was Mr. Radford getting dragged out of the World o’Stuff by the cops. It turns out Archie Hahn had actually been playing the role of a “compulsive imposter” named Suggs who had the real Radford tied up in the basement. And the real Radford is played by the mighty John Astin, and he’ll take a little larger role in the show for the last few segments.

“The Hole in the Head Gang” was written by the series’ co-creator Karl Schaefer, and it guest stars Claude Akins as the ghost of an incompetent gunslinger who haunts his old gun. It’s got the return of Forever Ware, a nun with a million dollars, a new job for Suggs, and a reference to Shrimpenstein. It’s completely delightful and our son was as happy as a kid can be to back in his favorite weird town.

The Twilight Zone 1.22 – The Monsters are Due on Maple Street

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a Rod Serling teleplay that stars Claude Akins as a man trying to use logic and reason to calm an increasingly hostile mob, isn’t entertaining. Some of it is dated, particularly in the performances, but that’s not what makes it an awkward and uncomfortable experience. It’s unsettling and awful, and watching it should be a mandatory experience.

We’ve never liked to discuss prejudice and bigotry in this country; as a society, we’re getting more and more squeamish about it with every passing presidential administration, while at the same time becoming more and more entrenched in the language of fear and hatred. Don’t like being reminded that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings in this country are the handiwork of white men? Bring up “Chicago violence,” and four or five people will nod sagely, knowing what you really mean.

Literally yesterday (Oct. 14), the Associated Press reported that the Biloxi MS school system has removed To Kill a Mockingbird from the eighth grade curriculum, because it was making people uncomfortable. It’s meant to.

I read the screenplay for “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” in my seventh grade textbook. It’s stayed with me ever since. We may not ever win against uncontrolled fear, hysteria, and prejudice, but any victory that we can manage will only come with kindness and compassion. Just be kind. Now that I think about it, that’s what we’re trying to teach our son.